Wednesday, September 8, 2010

We Are What We Say?

Sandra Parshall

When you look at a bridge, do you see it as male or female?

If your native language is English, you probably think that’s an absurd question. A bridge is a an object without gender. If you’re a German speaker, though, you’re likely to see a bridge as slender and elegant – feminine. A Spanish speaker may see it as possessing physical strength and other masculine qualities. German and Spanish, like French, assign genders to inanimate objects, and psychologists have found
in studies that this aspect of language literally affects the way the speakers see the world.

To me, language is the most fascinating and baffling aspect of human life. All animals communicate in one way or another, and many mammals and birds have vocabularies of spoken sounds with specific meanings, but no other creature has carried communication to the extreme that humans have. On a recent TV documentary about the brain, a neurosurgeon observed that most people feel they would have no reason to live if their ability to use and understand language were taken away.

Wouldn’t you love to know what the first human word was – the first sound that had a specific, widely accepted meaning? (An easy guess: it probably had something to do with either danger or food.) Look how far we’ve come since then. Why did so many different languages develop? Does the language we speak train us to see the world in a particular way?

I hadn't thought much about that last question until I read Guy Deutscher’s article on the subject in the August 29 issue of The New York Times Magazine. Deutscher rounds up recent research that indicates the answer is yes. (The article is adapted from his new book, Through the Language Glass.)

English is unusual among European languages, because it doesn’t assign gender to inanimate objects. English speakers don’t go through our days viewing cups, brooms, clocks, violins, rain and garbage as male or female. To us, almost everything is just an impersonal it. Does this mean we truly see the world in a different way? Apparently so.

Deutscher writes about an experiment in which French and Spanish speakers were asked to assign gendered human voices to objects in a cartoon. Most French speakers wanted to give a fork (la fourchette) a woman’s voice, while Spanish speakers said the fork (el tenedor) should have a gravelly male voice. What would English speakers say, after they stopped laughing at the very idea? My own reaction would probably be to study the shape of the fork and assign a gender voice based on its appearance.

As Deutscher notes, the research hasn’t yet been done that will demonstrate whether the “emotional maps” imposed by a language’s gender system have broad societal effects on tastes and behavior (not to mention the design of bridges). As we learn more about the human brain, we will discover just how strongly the languages we speak shape our everyday perceptions and actions.

Another intriguing aspect of language is the way we describe space and give directions. Studies have shown that women and men see the landscape around them in different ways. Men are better able to create maps of an area in their heads and use them to navigate, and they give directions accordingly. Women tend to rely on landmarks – pass the church on the corner to your left, look for the school on your right – to find their way, and most languages allow them to give directions in those terms. The majority of us use the words behind, front, left, and right routinely.

But what if your language didn’t include such terms? Guugu Yimithirr, an
Australian aboriginal tongue spoken only in far northern Queensland, doesn’t. Everybody, male and female, uses north, south, east, and west exclusively, even when talking about body movements. A left arm is never a left arm; depending on the person’s position, it’s a south arm or a west arm, etc. Children in the society learn this way of perceiving the world at a very early age, and they always know exactly where they are, and which direction they’re facing, on the compass. They have to develop this ability quickly, to be able to communicate when they speak – and they aren’t unique. Researchers have discovered a number of other languages scattered around the world that rely on geographical coordinates. All of these people think and live, to some extent, in ways forced on them by their languages.

It's more than a little amazing that we’re only now beginning to wonder whether language helps to shape our habits of thought, our perceptions and attitudes. We still don't always recognize the tremendous cultural weight some words carry. Considering how vital clear communication is in our dangerous world, we should all hope this field of research receives much more attention.


lil Gluckstern said...

Very interesting post. This makes your skills at writing even more important. What combination of words make for a good book? Or a poignant speech? Language makes us shiver, melt, well, you get the point. The only thing that makes me sad is that language as a beautiful tool is not really honored in our public spaces, i. e. the media, TV shows, and twitter, texting, etc. Are we formulating a new language? Very scary.

Sandra Parshall said...

If we are creating a new language, Lil, it's a pathetic one, starved of emotion and real meaning. English gives us so much freedom of expression, and here we are reducing it to e-speak.

Diane said...

As a military brat, I spent two years in Madrid, Spain. I've always found it interesting (and somewhat against English language stereotype) that in Spanish, beer (la servesa) is feminine, wine (el vino) masculine. I wonder why they get those gender applications, instead of the reverse.